Nov. 18, 2005
By Nathan Kirkham, University of Tennessee Sports Information
Thomas Wolfe may have written You Can't Go Home Again, but he didn't pen a word of the Doug Atkins story.
Atkins returns home once again to Neyland Stadium Saturday as the Volunteers line up against Vanderbilt in the ancient in-state rivalry. Since he left his native Humboldt, Tenn., for the big stage at the University of Tennessee, each homecoming has been more special than the last. The Humboldt Giant will have a tough time topping Saturday's festivities.
Just after noon Saturday, about half an hour before kickoff, Atkins joins the Vols' most exclusive club as his famous No. 91 is retired by the University of Tennessee. Technically, No. 91 lives on until its present holder, freshman defensive end Robert Ayers, completes his college career. At that point, No. 91 leaves the Vols' Shields-Watkins Field for good, trading turf stains for the trophy case.
Of the thousands of men who have donned orange and white, Atkins becomes one of just seven Vols to have his number retired. The other six have also written memorable chapters in the Tennessee story.
Earlier this year, prior to the Vols' Oct. 1 game against Mississippi, Tennessee great Reggie White's No. 92 was retired. Volunteer legend Peyton Manning's No. 16 was likewise pulled from circulation Oct. 29 as Tennessee played South Carolina.
Four jersey numbers - 32, 49, 61 and 62 - were retired in 1946 in memory of four true Volunteers who died in World War II. Bill Nowling's No. 32, Rudy Klarer's No. 49, Willis Tucker's No. 61 and Clyde "Ig" Fuson's No. 62 will justly never be worn again. Their owners sacrificed everything, just as many of their Volunteer ancestors had fallen in service from the dust of the Alamo to the forests of the Ardennes in World War I.
But Saturday belongs to Atkins, whose college and professional gridiron exploits cast a Bunyanesque shadow. All you really need to know about Atkins' ability is that he's the only person in Tennessee's proud football history to be enshrined in both the NFL and College halls of fame, though Vols' fans are crossing their fingers for a few more a little farther down the line.
"I'm very honored the university is retiring my number," Atkins said. "I always enjoyed my playing days at the University of Tennessee."
Atkins' comments on his number retirement are just as humble as his accomplishments are gaudy. He's considered by many to be the greatest defensive end in football history.
The funny thing is he arrived at Tennessee with a mind to pursue Dr. Naismith's game instead of Gen. Neyland's. Back home in West Tennessee, Atkins, a mere 6-foot-5 then, towered as a force to be reckoned with on the hardwood. It's a safe bet there weren't many easy rebounds grabbed versus Humboldt High. However, it couldn't be expected Gen. Neyland, a brilliant tactician and strategist, would let such a physical specimen escape his eye once Atkins arrived on The Hallowed Hill. Atkins did play basketball early in his career and proved a capable high jumper with the track squad. But The General's powers of persuasion won out. When he finally found his comfort zone and learned to take on blocks, Atkins scattered offensive players like bowling pins.
Did Tennessee's opponents fear Atkins?
"If he was in a bad mood they hated it," Tennessee teammate Pat Shires said. "He could jump and run. He had such strong arms. He didn't know anything about lifting weights, I don't guess. They always said he got so strong by lifting strawberry crates back home in Humboldt."
How dominant was Atkins at Tennessee? Atkins was selected SEC Player of the Quarter Century (1950-74), topping such legendary Southern heroes as Tennessee's Johnny Majors, Mississippi's Archie Manning, LSU's Billy Cannon and Alabama's Lee Roy Jordan. In fact, Atkins was the only player to be unanimously named to the All-SEC Quarter Century Team (1950-74).
"Doug Atkins was a tremendous athlete, one of the best defensive linemen I've ever seen," Gus Manning, UT's sports information director during Atkins' career, said. "He was very versatile. He was big, strong and powerful. He was so strong it was unbelievable. Offensive linemen just couldn't block him. He'd just throw them out of the way."
Long before Felice and Boudleaux Bryant had ever put "Rocky Top" to paper, the Humboldt Giant's theme song should have been the old spiritual "I Shall Not Be Moved." Atkins just didn't give up much real estate near the line of scrimmage. Often, offensive plays were simply run to the other side of the field. At the same time, Atkins proved mobile and agile enough to backpeddle from his defensive end position to cover a receiver stride for stride if Neyland's defensive call so dictated. A skilled defensive end as a sophomore and junior, he moved to defensive tackle his senior year. Atkins was also a threat to use his high-jump technique to swat a quarterback's aerial from the sky.
Atkins earned All-America status in 1952. He earned first-team All-SEC status in 1951 and '52. Fueling excellence on some of Gen. Neyland's most successful squads, Tennessee went 29-4-1 and won the 1951 national championship with Atkins patrolling the defensive line.
Though his future would be found in football, Atkins hadn't yet worked the basketball bug out of his system. After his collegiate football career wrapped up, Atkins signed on with the Detroit Vagabonds, a barnstorming basketball outfit. In the team photo, Atkins wore No. 23. While not as good as a No. 23 that would dominate Chicago basketball in later years just as Atkins dominated Chicago football, the 1952-53 Detroit Vagabonds ran up 179-4 record.
The Cleveland Browns used their No. 1 pick in the 1953 draft on Atkins. Cleveland's Weeb Ewbank tracked down Atkins and the Vagabonds somewhere in Georgia. Atkins enjoyed his signing bonus of two cheeseburgers and eight beers and then signed a $6,800 contract, a bargain for the Browns even at the time.
Happily for Atkins, the rest of his career was more impressive than his first contract negotiation, though the money for even the best stars in those days was a trickle compared to the flood of riches available today.
Atkins retired with 205 NFL games played, a record at the time for a defensive lineman. Atkins made life hard for offensive linemen for 17 NFL seasons. He began his pro career in Cleveland and played two seasons. Atkins made his biggest splash with the Chicago Bears, where he played 12 seasons. No less authority than George "Papa Bear" Halas called Atkins "the greatest defensive end who ever played the game." Atkins wrapped up his career with a three-year stop in New Orleans. He played in four world's championship games (pre-Super Bowl) and on two NFL title teams, the 1953 Browns and the 1963 Bears. He played in the Pro Bowl nine times. Atkins won the 1968 Vince Lombardi Award for dedication to the game.
After two seasons and an NFL title in Cleveland playing for Paul Brown, Atkins was traded to the Chicago Bears. The king of the Bears, Halas called the trade he brokered with the Browns to gain Atkins' services "one of the finest trades I ever made."
Following Horace Greeley's advice, Atkins headed west, though only about 350 miles. He was the biggest thing to hit Chicago since Al "Scarface" Capone, and only slightly less scary. However, you may get some argument and a reordering of that fearsome twosome from some of the wide-eyed offensive linemen unfortunate enough to line up across from Atkins. Perhaps some of the poor quarterbacks and tailbacks cowering behind their offensive line would rather have faced "Scarface" than a stoked up Atkins with mayhem on his mind.
You can bet quarterbacks of the era knew where Atkins was on every play. "If Doug was playing, you were in trouble and in for a long day," the great Johnny Unitas told Tennessee administrator Gus Manning. Unitas, a Hall of Fame quarterback in his own right, remembered that one of Atkins' favorite tricks was to throw a blocker at the quarterback, which does tend to disrupt the passing game.
Offenses of the day were evolving, but when playing the Bears the most effective scheme of them all was the "Don't make Atkins mad" offense. After an early tangle with Atkins, rookie Jim Parker, a Hall of Fame guard with the Colts, wondered about the wisdom of his chosen career. He began to feel better after being reassured that there weren't many in the league that could hold a candle to The Humboldt Giant.
In 1963, the Bears defeated the New York Giants 14-10 for the NFL championship, the second of Atkins' career. It seems the Giants from the Empire State didn't measure up to the Humboldt Giant.
After 12 seasons with the Bears, Atkins made the Big Easy his home and spent his last three seasons with the New Orleans Saints, by all accounts an enjoyable and productive stop for the former Vol.
"He is the strongest man in football and also the biggest," quarterback great Fran Tarkenton said. "When he rushes the passer with those oak tree arms of his way up in the air, he's 12-feet tall. And if he gets to you, the world suddenly starts spinning."
After his playing career concluded, UT called Big Doug back to the Neyland Stadium's grand stage for a curtain call. After he had been crowned SEC Player of the Quarter Century, his alma mater honored the Humboldt Giant in a ceremony by proclaiming Sept. 11, 1976, "Doug Atkins Day."
He was elected into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1982. Atkins was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1985.
Atkins took a variety of jobs after he walked away from the game. One of the most eye-catching was working in sales for a casket-making company. His previous experience of planting quarterbacks in the sod surely came in handy.
Regardless of how many years rolled by or where Atkins was earning a paycheck, one thing remained a constant--put him on a football field and the Humboldt Giant had few peers. The 100-yard chalk lines fenced in his yard. The football field was his home.
On Saturday, Neyland Stadium, the spiritual hometown of football dreamers across the Volunteer State, will respond unanimously that you can go home again. Welcome home Doug Atkins. We're glad to have you.